July 10, 2014

Beatrix Farrand

Groundbreaking Landscape Architect

  • Beatrix Farrand and Groundbreakers at NYBG

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory nestled into the grounds of The New York Botanical Gardens.


The New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) in the Bronx serves as one of those “minutes away/worlds apart” venues less than an hour from New York City and many Westchester County locales. The frenetic pace and chronic heavy traffic melts away once you walk through the gate of the complex, which was chartered by the state of New York in 1891 after a successful campaign launched by eminent Columbia University botanist Nathaniel Lord Britton, and his wife, Elizabeth, also a botanist. The couple had visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London, in 1888 and returned to the states determined that New York have one of the world’s great botanical gardens. Now that’s what I call a perfect #ThrowbackThursday fact!

I was inspired to visit the garden recently by their summer exhibition featuring the work of landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand, who was Edith Wharton’s niece and a close friend of another famous author, Henry James. The exhibition honoring the groundbreaking landscape architect meanders through the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is called “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them.” The plantings recreate segments of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, which Farrand designed for Rockefeller and her husband John in Seal Harbor, Maine. I highly recommend a visit if you are anywhere near the NYBG before “Groundbreakers” closes on September 7, 2014.

Moon Gate at NYBG on Global Lighting Blog

Farrand’s Moon Gate, an Asian-inspired construction she created for the Rockefeller Garden, was replicated at the NYBG.

I’ve been paying particular attention to the talents of Landscape Architects lately because Global Lighting is a distributor of a number of light fixtures suited for gardens, public plazas, and city parks (such as the AMS, the Belt, the Boletus, the Kanpazar, and the Frame). My search for historic mentions of professionals in the field led me to Farrand and her story. If you haven’t read about her, the story is a fascinating one: she was the only female founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (though she preferred to call herself a landscape gardener), and her passion for designing and planting gardens of note is evident in letters she wrote. There’s an entire book of them between Farrand and her famous aunt, and several she penned to the Rockefellers about the gardens she was designing for them were part of the exhibition:

“Please forgive so long a letter, and also believe that I am almost ashamed of spending as much time in your garden as I have done, but it is frankly so absorbing my thoughts, and it will be such a joy if it can be made a success and happiness to you and Mrs. Rockefeller, that I am throwing myself into the work with my whole heart,” she wrote to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1928. Once the garden was completed, Rockefeller wrote to Farrand, “It did me good to see you although so briefly in your lovely garden. We are fellow travelers along a lonely road. But we both have wonderful memories to sustain us in the days that lie ahead and profound cause for gratitude.”

Groundbreakers Placard on Global Lighting Blog

The NYBG app for the Groundbreakers exhibition walks attendees through the installation.

The abundance of blossoms and the deluge of colors fanning out in waves throughout the Conservatory at NYBG bring nothing short of sensory overload, all made more vibrant if you download the NYBG app from iTunes that accompanies the exhibition. My experience has made me want to tour the few other gardens remaining in the United States, including the one at Dumbarton Oaks, built by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, and her own residence in Reef Point, Maine. Be sure to walk through the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden Farrand designed at NYBG if you do visit NYBG.

As I was walking through examples of her vision, I wondered what she would think of Landscape Architecture today. She didn’t have an easy time of it in those early days given how different the work-world was for women but I think she would be proud of the benefits the organization provides for its members, such as opportunities for awards and an annual convention that offers excellent programming. I found this competition, which allows Landscape Architects the chance to showcase healthcare projects, on the ASLA web site. Sponsored by the Vendome Group—publisher of Healthcare Design, Environments for Aging and Long-Term Living magazines—call for submissions is open through July 14th. If you enter a project, post a photograph and call us out on Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ or Twitter so we can help promote it, okay?

And a big round of applause for the 2014 Honors recipients announced by the ASLA!

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